The wildfires that have ravaged parts of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico create a cascade of long-lasting misery.
In the March 12 fires that swept across the Texas Panhandle, loads of cattle were trapped in the raging fires -- 10,000 by one estimate -- and more than 700,000 acres burned. This means that grass -- already at a minimum due to drought -- is years away at best. As many as 25,000 head of cattle were estimated to be in the affected area, according to Steve Amosson, a Texas Cooperative Extension economist.
"We probably had a lot of calves that were lying out susceptible to the fire, as fast as it was moving across there," says Ted McCollum, Extension livestock specialist for Texas A&M University (TAMU). "They had no place to go. Also, there will be a lot of mothers with potentially scorched udders. The calves that survived won't be able to suckle the mothers who have sore udders."
Health disorders, such as burned eyes, feet, udders, sheaths and testicles, as well as smoke inhalation with lung inflammation and edema, are the most common problems in these situations, says Floron "Buddy" Faries, the Extension program leader for veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University.
"One of the problems we've run into in the past is with the feet," explains Ron Gill, Extension livestock specialist in Stephenville. "It may take 10 days to two weeks for the damage to start showing. The cattle will start sloughing the hoof wall and become crippled." Extension service personnel and veterinarians are working on determining major symptoms to look for and what actions to take if lameness begins to appear, he says.
"To assure the welfare of the affected animals, veterinarians need to be consulted," Faries says. "If, in the event the animal is not going to be able to be treated, decisions concerning sending them to market need to be made immediately, before secondary complications develop."
Faries also advises designing an animal evacuation and rescue plan to prepare for wildfires. He says plans should include ways of moving livestock out of the fire danger zone. This may include hauling the livestock out in trailers, opening gates or cutting fences and releasing the livestock; allowing them to move to a safer place, including plowed ground or wheat pasture, he says.
Keep in mind the fire danger zone isn't just where the fire is, Faries says. It's where the livestock risk inhaling smoke. Smoke can move for miles, and cattle that aren't near the flames or heat can suffer damage, too.
Contact with burning grass, weeds and brush causes immediate burns, Faries says. However, he explains inhalation of smoke causes immediate irritation to the lining of the respiratory system, including nasal passages, trachea and lungs. This can lead to inflammation, edema and emphysema, with the severity determined by the duration of inhaled smoke.
"The time it takes to cause damage might only have to be a few minutes with high quantities of smoke, and may be hours in low quantities of smoke," Faries says. He adds the lining of the eyelids and eyeballs can be irritated and lead to secondary infections, which can be fatal.
Once the fire has passed, Faries advises immediately consulting a veterinarian for any animals with severe burns or direct smoke exposure. They will evaluate if the animal can be salvaged, or for humane reasons, should be slaughtered or euthanized. Other livestock should also be evaluated for possible health disorders.
Monitoring should continue for weeks after the event, Faries says. "Before these secondary complications of infection occur (such as cough or cloudy eye), immediate slaughter for human consumption may be the most appropriate humane procedure," Faries explains. "Prior to slaughter, an antemortem inspection will be conducted by veterinary meat inspectors to determine safety and wholesomeness for human food."